Jack Atterberry, MJLST Staffer
The FTX Collapse and Its Implications
Over the last few weeks, the company FTX has imploded in what appears to be a massive scam of epic proportions. John Ray III, the former Enron restructuring leader who just took over FTX as CEO in their bankruptcy process, described FTX’s legal and bankruptcy situation as “worse than Enron” and a “complete failure of corporate control.” FTX is a leading cryptocurrency exchange company that provided a platform on which customers could buy and sell crypto assets – similar to a traditional finance stock exchange. As of this past summer, FTX was worth $32 billion and served as a platform that global consumers trusted enough to deposit tens of billions of dollars in assets.
Although FTX and its CEO Sam Bankman-Fried (“SBF”) engaged in numerous questionable and likely illegal business practices, perhaps the greatest fraudulent activity was intermingling customer deposits on the FTX exchange platform with assets from SBF’s asset management firm Alameda Research. Although facts are still being uncovered, preliminary investigations have highlighted that Alameda Research was using customer deposits in their trading and lending activities without customer consent – now customers face the unpleasant reality that their assets (in excess of $1 billion on aggregate) may never be returned. While many lessons in corporate governance can be learned from the FTX situation, a key legal implication of the meltdown is that crypto has a regulatory problem that needs to be addressed by Congress and other US government agencies.
Current State of Government Regulation
Crypto assets are a relatively new asset class and have risen to prominence globally since the publishing of the Bitcoin white paper by the anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto in 2009. Although crypto assets and the business activities associated with them are regulated in the United States, this regulation has been inconsistent and has created uncertainty for businesses and individuals in the ecosystem. Currently, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), state legislatures, the US Treasury, and a host of other government agencies have acted inconsistently. The SEC has inconsistently pursued enforcement actions, state governments have enacted differing digital assets laws, and the Treasury has banned crypto entities without clear rationale. This has been a major problem for the industry and has led companies (including now infamously FTX) to move abroad to seek more regulatory certainty. Companies like FTX have chosen to domicile in jurisdictions like the Bahamas to avoid having to guess what approach various state governments and federal agencies will take with regard to its digital asset business activities.
Earlier in 2022, Congress introduced the Digital Commodities Consumer Protection Act (“DCCPA”) to attempt to fill gaps in the federal regulatory framework that oversees the crypto industry. The Digital Commodities Consumer Protection Act amends the Commodity Exchange Act to create a much-needed comprehensive and robust regulatory framework for spot markets of digital asset commodities. The DCCPA would enable the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) to require digital asset commodity exchanges to actively prevent fraud and market manipulation, and would provide the CFTC regulatory authority to access quote and trade data allowing them to identify market manipulation more easily. Taken as a whole, the DCCPA would implement consumer protections relating to digital asset commodities, ensure oversight of digital asset commodity platforms (such as FTX, Coinbase, etc.), and better prevent system risk to financial markets. This regulation fills in a necessary gap in federal crypto regulation and industry observers are optimistic of its chances in getting passed as law.
Digital Asset Regulation Has a Long Path Ahead
Despite the potential benefits and strong congressional regulatory action that the DCCPA represents, elements of the bill have been criticized by both the crypto industry and policy experts. According to the Blockchain Association, a leading crypto policy organization, the DCCPA could present negative implications for the decentralized finance (“DeFi”) ecosystem because of the onerous reporting and custody requirements that elements of the DCCPA would inflict on De-Fi protocols and applications. “De-Fi” is a catch-all term for blockchain-based financial tools that allow users to trade, borrow, and loan crypto assets without third-party intermediaries. The DCCPA attempts to regulate intermediary risks associated with digital asset trading whereas the whole point of De-Fi is to remove intermediaries through the use of blockchain software technology. The Blockchain Association has also criticized the DCCPA as providing an overly broad definition for “digital commodity platform” and an overly narrow and ambiguous definition of “digital commodity” which could create future unnecessary turf wars between the SEC and CFTC. When Congress revisits this bill next year, these complexities will likely be brought up in weighing the pros and cons of the bill. Besides the textual contents of the DCCPA, the legislators pushing forward the bill must also deal with the DCCPA’s negative association with Sam Bankman-Fried, the former FTX CEO. The former FTX CEO and suspected fraudster was perhaps the greatest supporter of the bill and lobbied for its provisions before Congress several times. While Bankman-Fried’s support does not necessarily mean anything is wrong with the bill, some legislators and lobbyists may be hesitant to push forward a bill that was heavily influenced by a person who perpetrated a massive fraud scheme severely hurting thousands of consumers.
Though the goal of the DCCPA is to establish CFTC authority over crypto assets that qualify as commodities, the crypto ecosystem will still be left with several unanswered regulatory issues if it is passed. A key question is whether digital assets will be treated as commodities, securities or something else entirely. In addition, another key looming question is how Congress will regulate stablecoins—a type of digital asset where the price is designed to be pegged to another type of asset, typically a real-world asset such as US Treasury bills. For these unanswered questions Congress and the SEC will likely need to provide additional guidance and rules to build on the increased certainty that could be brought about with the DCCPA. By passing an amended version of the DCCPA with more careful attention paid to the De-Fi ecosystem as well as clarified definitions of digital commodities and digital commodity platforms, Congress would go a long way in the right direction to prevent future FTX-like fraud schemes, protect consumers, and ensure crypto innovation stays in the US.
 Ken Sweet & Michelle Chapman, FTX Is a Bigger Mess Than Enron, New CEO Says, Calling It “Unprecedented”, TIME (Nov. 17, 2022), https://time.com/6234801/ftx-fallout-worse-than-enron/
 FTX Company Profile, FORBES, https://www.forbes.com/companies/ftx/?sh=506342e23c59
 Osipovich et al., They Lived Together, Worked Together and Lost Billions Together: Inside Sam Bankman-Fried’s Doomed FTX Empire, WSJ (Nov. 19, 2022), https://www.wsj.com/articles/sam-bankman-fried-ftx-alameda-bankruptcy-collapse-11668824201
 Guardian Nigeria, The idea and a brief history of cryptocurrencies, The Guardian (Dec. 26, 2022), https://guardian.ng/technology/tech/the-idea-and-a-brief-history-of-cryptocurrencies/
 Kathryn White, Cryptocurrency regulation: where are we now, and where are we going?, World Economic Forum (Mar. 28, 2022), https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/03/where-is-cryptocurrency-regulation-heading/
 US Senate Agriculture Committee, Crypto One-Pager: The Digital Commodities Consumer Protection Act Closes Regulatory Gaps, https://www.agriculture.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/crypto_one-pager1.pdf
 Courtney Degen, Washington wants to regulate cryptocurrency, Pensions & Investments (Oct. 3, 2022), https://www.pionline.com/cryptocurrency/washington-wants-regulate-crypto-path-unclear
 Jake Chervinsky, Blockchain Association Calls for Revisions to the Digital Commodities Consumer Protection Act (DCCPA), Blockchain Association (Sept. 15, 2022), https://theblockchainassociation.org/blockchain-association-calls-for-revisions-to-the-digital-commodities-consumer-protection-act-dccpa/
 Rakesh Sharma, What is Decentralized Finance (DeFi) and How Does It Work?, Investopedia (Sept. 21, 2022), https://www.investopedia.com/decentralized-finance-defi-5113835.
 Jennifer J. Schulpt & Jack Solowey, DeFi Must Be Defended, CATO Institute (Oct. 26, 2022), https://www.cato.org/commentary/defi-must-be-defended
 Jake Chervinsky, supra note 7.
 Fran Velasquez, Former SEC Official Doubts FTX Crash Will Prompt Congress to Act on Crypto Regulations, CoinDesk (Nov. 16, 2022), https://www.coindesk.com/business/2022/11/16/former-sec-official-doubts-ftx-crash-will-prompt-congress-to-act-on-crypto-regulations/